S.B. Divya’s new novella Runtime is a very personal story about poverty and caste systems that takes place in a not-too-distant future where marathon runners (like myself) are able to legally enhance their personal abilities through the addition of exoskeletons, microchips, and other cyborg enhancements. It also does a great job of incorporating the weird little problems and lifestyle changes that no one ever talks about when they talk about running.
Author S.B. Divya is also an engineer and a trail runner (just read through her blog), which makes her ideally suited to interpreting the minute details of running through the unique challenges that exoskeletal mechanics would add to the activity.
The racing challenge facing the main character Marmeg is as follows:
…traverse a minimum of seventy-five miles before crossing the finish line on the eastern side of the Sierras. The record holder, from two years past, finished at a minute over eighteen hours.
The distance of a marathon is 26.2 miles, and it takes most runners between 3 and 6 hours to run that distance. Distances beyond 26.2, such as the 75 miles that Marmeg is running, are known as ultramarathons, and they are just as intense and impossible as you’d think. Marmeg is also trail running, which means that the runner’s route moves through forests, up mountains, across rivers, and more without the benefit of paved or accessible terrain. If you’ve ever tripped on a root on a forest path, or struggled up a steep boulder, imagine having to run non-stop over such constant obstacles. For days. Ultramarathons of this distance and nature are meant to be impossible, to push the limits of the human body. The 100+ mile Barkley Marathons didn’t have a single finisher for several years after its inception, and that’s a race that allows the runner to rest and re-supply every 26.2 miles. Marmeg’s race, in comparison, doesn’t allow for any re-supply at all! Marmeg hasn’t entered a race, she’s entered a death sentence.
Still, Marmeg’s race starts off pretty relatably, right from the very first sentence.
The race opened like sand pushing through the neck of an hourglass. The lead contestants took off down the main trail at an easy run. Marmeg kept herself in their midst. A swarm of cameras flew above them, tracking every move and narrating the action to faraway viewers.
The logjam at the beginning is an oft-experienced aspect to races, from competitive marathons to casual 5Ks. Although not every runner finishes a race at the same time, every runner starts at the same time, and since races are typically on roads, tracks, or trails, every runner is compressed into a tube of limited space. This results in a slow stampede, as the runners attempt to march along as a crowd. This hinders faster runners, who must run below their natural pace, and stresses out slow runners, who need time for their heart and lungs to get accustomed to the quicker pace.
For a popular race, it usually takes a mile for the crowd to thin out, equalizing as the faster runners push forward and the slower runners fall back. This kind of logjam forces a top competitor to start with a slower-than-average mile, which means they’ll have to run a quicker-than-average mile later on to make up for it. Most professional racing organizations compensate for this by grouping runners by their average time-per-mile, with the fastest competitors allowed to go first, ahead of the crowd.
Oddly, having a clear field actually encourages top competitors to group together! This practice is called “drafting,” and it is thought to decrease wind resistance for the trailing runner, allowing them to maintain a rapid pace with slightly less effort than the runner in front of them. This sounds pedantic, but any small advantage can accumulate into a large gain over a long distance, such as a marathon or an ultramarathon.
Competitive runners really need the small advantages, too, because starting with a big advantage isn’t as valuable as it seems. From Runtime:
Being in the lead at the start had no correlation to being in the winners’ list at the end, but it did boost your ratings. Most viewers only paid attention to the crowd during the open and the finish. The rest of the race belonged to the pros who could record and sell their whole experience as movies.
Today, this applies to both competitive and non-competitive runners. If a race extends past a mile or two, then runners pushing themselves in those initial miles tire more quickly than runners keeping a steady, if slower, pace. The initial gain can disappear rapidly.
For example, imagine that Runner A and their direct competitor Runner B both consistently run 1 mile every 10 minutes. Runner A decides to start out fast, though, and runs a 9:30 mile for the first 2 miles. By the time Runner B hits the 2-mile mark, Runner A is ahead by a full minute and one-tenth of a mile.
Except now Runner A, having exhausted themselves by starting fast, slows to a 15-minute mile walking pace at that 2.10 mile point in order to catch their breath. Runner B continues to maintain a 10-minute mile, so if Runner A needs more than 1 minute to catch their breath, then Runner B will catch up, and Runner A’s exhaustion will have been for nothing.
If you’ve ever watched a marathon and wondered why everyone wasn’t flat-out running, the body’s energy demands are the reason why. Even with mid-race refueling, the energy a runner has is finite, and it has to be massaged out to fit the distance the runner wants to achieve.
With that in mind, Runtime‘s Marmeg certainly starts her race ominously…
Marmeg pushed her body and her gear hard. A few heads turned in surprise as she passed them. Her breath came fast and shallow, but she gained until only three people remained ahead of her. If nothing else, she was in the top five at this moment.
It’s quick, but in the next paragraph runners will notice that S. B. Divya is layering in another sign that Marmeg’s run may not go well:
They sprinted together over rocks and fallen trees. Dodged the grasping branches of low-growing bushes. Curved around trunks as wide as the pillars of City Hall. A cool wind brought the smell of rain.
Rain can be friend or foe to a runner, but it’s mostly a foe. While the cool wind is initially rejuvenating, the reprieve is temporary. After a half hour, usually less, the water cools a runner to the point where they’re forced to continue running in order to maintain their normal, stationary body temperature. The water also binds a runner’s clothing to their skin, making it more difficult to move and encouraging chafing. (I once got caught in a rainstorm while running up the west side of Manhattan and didn’t notice that my shirt had chafed open a patch of skin on my stomach until I saw the blood stain reflected in the window of a subway door. No wonder I hadn’t been able to hail a cab.)
Marmeg has an additional worry. A long or heavy rain will make the trail muddy, or outright impassable, will swell rivers, and make rocks too slick to climb.
The lead cluster spread out over the course of the first thirty minutes. People split off to follow their predetermined routes or took alternate ways around ponds and meadows. The other runners became blurs flitting between columnar trunks, far enough to be unobtrusive. The last drone camera had turned back at the twenty-minute mark, pushing the limits of its range.
Marmeg leapt on a fallen tree and used it to cross a boggy section. She skirted a car-sized knot of rotten wood at the far end and stopped to get her bearings. The other contestants had disappeared from sight. Like the fingers of a river delta, they would follow unique paths to the finish line. Her own route headed northeast toward the first of many low ridges.
As Marmeg ran, she heard nothing but the whispers of her footfalls and the wind through the trees. The rushing sound reminded her of rice pouring from a burlap sack. Don’t think about food, she told herself.
Especially not on a 75-mile run! The importance of food comes up later in Runtime, which is good because eating becomes a massive logistical problem in marathons and ultramarathon races. You can extend your body’s store of energy while running by sipping sports drinks (which are basically sugar water with a little bit of salt), small edible “gels” (basically congealed sports drink goo), or energy bars. But the longer the race, the more diminished the return on quick-stimulant substances like these. If you’re running a marathon, you’re converting one whole caloric pound of yourself into energy, and if a runner is going beyond that point then, simply, they need to eat a meal. Here’s a list of what some professional ultramarathoners bring to munch on. It’s mostly…meat and potatoes! Notice that almost all of them load up with a huge breakfast beforehand, as well, a luxury that Runtime‘s Marmeg cannot afford.
Some runners are accustomed to nibbling while at an easy jog, but it’s not a comfortable experience. Running clenches the digestive system, so small meals and drinks can feel like they weigh a ton. This muscle clench also makes it difficult to judge when to stop and go to the bathroom, and a long distance runner can go from feeling fine in one step to feeling like they have to go now in the next step.
The clouds grew darker as she gained elevation. The air thinned and cooled. The light was dim for midday. Marmeg stopped to get a kinetic charger out of her gear bag and strap it to her left arm. Her cuff had solar cells, but they wouldn’t be of much use in this weather.
She set her pace at a jog, leaping over the occasional fallen tree. Once, she startled a squirrel as she landed on the far side of a trunk. Had it been a snake, she could’ve been out of the race, like two years back when a contestant needed air rescue for a rattlesnake bite. She avoided blind jumps after that.
A “jog” means a very easy run, usually the pace you want for long distances. If you can run and still talk, you’re jogging. Marmeg’s worry over the snake is also a great reminder by Divya that pretty much any damn thing on a mountainous ultramarathon like this one has the potential to stop you.
So why do this kind of thing at all? Divya answers that, too.
Heavy drops of rain spattered Marmeg as the trees dwindled. The pale hue of granite filled the widening gaps between reddish-brown trunks. In minutes, the woods went from sparse to nonexistent, replaced by boulders and twiggy bushes. A towering ridge rose from the open ground. Slabs of gray laced with pale blue and white loomed like sloppy icing on her mother’s homemade cakes.
Marmeg grinned and raised her wrist to take a picture. Her brothers would be amazed that she’d climbed over this. Raindrops fell faster as she leapt from one mound to the next, the muscles of her legs reacting with unnatural force, driven by the exoskeleton. The journey to the top of the ridge was a dance. Jump. Twist. Take three delicately balanced steps to the left. Jump again.
A cramp in her right calf forced her to stop and adjust the exo’s settings. Marmeg breathed heavily and took a break to look around from the high point. She stood on an island of stone surrounded by conical tips of dark green, a sea that undulated and shifted in color depending on the terrain. In the distance, sheets of rain obscured the serrated peaks that awaited her. Lightning flickered in her periphery.
She stared, unblinking, until she saw one strike in full. The jagged, white-hot flash was a phenomenon she’d never seen in her eighteen years of life in Los Angeles. Alone on the ridge, she thought to herself: This must be how God felt after creating the world.
Marmeg is the one who is risking everything, who has ventured into the mountains, and who now stands at the center of a natural maelstrom. For a moment, nothing else exists. No American caste system, no limits on her future, no bullshit. This moment belongs to her and she to it.
There’s another important reason why people run, apart from the physical benefits: it imparts a truly objective sense of improvement. A runner can measure their distance and speed and know they’ve just run farther, or faster, than ever before. This sense of accomplishment is a powerful secondary benefit. Marmeg pushes herself, and she is stronger as a result, and in beautiful, tempestuous places that she never imagined she would see.
A loud crack from behind brought her back to mortality. Lightning preferred to strike at exposed locations. She would be safer in the forest. Marmeg descended the ridge, favoring speed over grace. When she reached the shelter of trees, she slowed down. Rain trickled down her head in steady rivulets. The precipitation made a gentle rustle as it fell through the alpine canopy. The air had be- come noticeably cooler, and her wet state wasn’t helping. Marmeg activated the heating coils in the torso shell.
Twenty minutes later, her breath came out in cottony white puffs, and she was colder than ever. She slipped a hand under the shell to confirm what she suspected: it hadn’t warmed up.
Muttering curses in Tagalog that she’d learned from her mother, she stopped and reached into her pack. Her hand found the soft bundle of spare clothing.
Marmeg slipped out of the torso shell and sleeves. Goosebumps popped up along her bare arms. She pulled on a thermal shirt and a fleece sweatshirt with a faded US Army logo. Back on went the gear, and over that, the dollar-store plastic rain poncho. At least the torso shell’s abdominal activators and cardio monitor still worked. Some semblance of warmth returned after Marmeg jogged for a mile through the sodden trees. Her steps converged to an even rhythm. Her mind wandered to daydreams. She would finish her degree in embed design and get a “benefits job,” as people said back home. If she was lucky, the company would pay for additional enhancements and surgeries. Then, once she was sufficiently buffed, she could quit and become a professional racer.
Her cuff beeped. She was off course by a quarter mile. She stopped running and traced a corrected path. Her sweat cooled. She shivered and looked up at the gray skies. They’d grown darker and more swollen with rain. Keep moving, stay warm.